There’s a passage in Elissa Washuta’s devastating debut memoir, My Body Is a Book of Rules (Red Hen Press, $16.95), that strikes at the heart of the disconnect between those struggling with mental illness and those who live unencumbered by its terrors. It’s a question someone like Washuta, who has bipolar disorder, has fielded over and over—one she dubs the “acquaintance’s innocent question”: “Don’t you ever think about not taking those nasty chemicals?”
“People definitely don’t get it, and that’s why I wrote that,” Washuta says over a recent coffee near her Madison Park home. “I got that question so many times. Of course, I think constantly about not talking all the meds. Every time I take a pill, it’s a reaffirmation that I need to take them; the side effects are so horrible. [But] because [many of us] can pass in society, it can seem like we don’t need them.”
It certainly does. In person, Washuta, 29, is reserved and accomplished: an award- and grant-winning writer, the UW’s Undergraduate Advisor for American Indian Studies, and a resident writing mentor for the Institute of American Indian Arts, among other distinctions.
Cover of Elissa Washuta’s book My Body Is a Book of Rules. Courtesy Red Hen Press
Yet the portrait of the narrator presented in the book is self-destructive, self-medicating, and self-loathing. It’s a harrowing and deeply revealing account examined not only through the lens of mental illness, but with the added identity crisis of growing up part American Indian and, later, being a survivor of sexual assault.
“I wanted to create something that was as true to my memory as possible,” says Washuta, “because I found doing that made me really press on things that were really uncomfortable. If I had tried to bend the truth a little bit to make a convenient plot line, then I would be letting myself out of some things that were hard and needed to be examined.”
With a few names changed, much of her story takes place after Washuta leaves her parent’s New Jersey home, while attending college in Maryland and later pursuing a MFA in creative writing at the UW. Alone she navigates a world of manic highs, promiscuity, sexual trauma, adverse drug side-effects, weight gain and loss, grief and depression. It’s an exquisitely poignant chronicle, captivating in the author’s vulnerability.
In one passage, Washuta writes, “The wreckage of my early twenties looked like a battlefield littered with partners’ bodies, and for years, I wielded my anger like a sword, making my hate count, keeping the gash open. With the rapist out of my world, I carried out those duels against myself, a poor sparring partner, beaten-down and humbled.”
Washuta further reels the reader into her world through chapters structured as annotated bibliographies, term papers, IM transcripts, and prescription drug lists. “I started playing around with forms that were in my world,” she explains. “I felt that that was a more accurate representation of my world that trying to jam things into the traditional memoir structure.” In this way, she says, she hopes “the reader would be OK going into dangerous territory.”
My Body Is a Book of Rules is acute, raw, and cathartic, an account that carries you along with Washuta’s many setbacks and final progress. There’s no ultimate cure, of course, but Washuta says her goal is to help readers understand “what it’s like to be in so much terror and to have such an ill brain. I want my book to get a good conversation going.” Richard Hugo House 1634 11th Ave., 322-7030, hugohouse.org. Free. 7 p.m. Fri., Oct. 3.
Read more features from Seattle Weekly’s 2014 Fall Arts Guide, as well as a complete calendar of this season’s events, here.